Fell, the debut feature film from short film veteran Kasimir Burgess, has the potential to shake up the Australian film landscape. Not only is the film having its world premiere in competition at Sydney Film Festival, it is being distributed online through an on-demand service immediately after its premiere at the festival. We sat down with director Kasimir Burgess and producer/distributor John Maynard.
So you won the Crystal Bear in Berlin for your short Lily in 2011. Do you think that winning an international prize puts some pressure on you domestically to make a feature film?
Kasimir Burgess (KB): Not really. I think the win really gave me some more opportunities and brought me to the attention of some really good producers, like John here. Screen Australia do ask the question, though, what next? I’ve been making shorts for ten years now and I would’ve happily made shorts for another ten years. I never saw them as a stepping stone or a calling card, just a beautiful length, it’s a short story.
It seems like, with Lily especially, that it is like that, it’s a moment and has an unusual tension, because you know it’s building to something but have no idea exactly what. There’s a catharsis to its end. Lily was also based on a painting, so you have this even smaller sense of narrative storytelling, more dependent on viewer input.
KB: I guess that coming from an arts background, with sculpture and photography, it seemed a natural progression to tie a painting to a film and it’s something that John is also interested in – that line between art and film, narrative and documentary – and just bringing a whole bunch of ideas together and playing. It’s great to have that aspect nurtured.
You went to the Victorian College of the Arts, do you think that institutions like the VCA are necessary to make films in Australia? Did it help you significantly?
KB: I don’t think the VCA is necessary at all to make films in Australia. For me it was helpful, I met Ari Wegner and Adam Arkapaw and these people who have become lifelong collaborators and friends and we’ve inspired each other and pushed each other harder. So aside from the teachers and the education the main thing at a uni is just meeting people and getting a network of people that you can then collaborate wth.
On collaboration, how did you get involved with Natasha Pincus, who wrote Fell? I know she has a big background in music videos.
KB: Natasha got in touch with me, she’d seen a few of my shorts, Booth Story and Directions and she connected with the material and asked if she could write a film for me. So I started pitching her ideas and she started rejecting them and eventually we found something that we both wanted to extrapolate and expand upon and it’s been a good working relationship.
It seemed like you could pause Lily and the freeze frame would look like the press stills for Fell – the forest and the idea of returning to nature seems strongly present in both. Is that a concept you feel strongly about on a personal level?
KB: I guess, with Lily being in that world for 15 minutes maybe wasn’t quite enough for me, that’s maybe why the forest world, the darkness there and the drama of that stage, so it did feel like there was still some area to explore there within the forest. Very different films, though. Similar setting, I guess. I wouldn’t draw too many comparisons between the two other than they are set in forests. Very different kinds of trees as well, one was the redwood and the other was the gums in Victoria.
I guess shooting with different trees is a way to showcase different parts of Australia, to have some kind of non-overt stamp that ‘this is an Australian film’.
KB: It’s always desert or a farm, it’s dry, it’s arid. I guess I prefer the wetness and the darkness and the greenness – something vibrant and fable-like, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, these classic forests in Germany and you think anything is possible here.
You’ve got a strong visual sense, obviously, but in Lily one thing that surprised me was that even though it is so visually strong the sound design is quite interesting – you have the mechanical crackling radio then a cut to Lily running past the stream and the sound of that natural thing is so loud and so juxtaposed.
KB: I think that, to me, sound design is very important and needs to be considered and if you don’t have much dialogue then it’s another voice, it’s words – you can say a lot with it. You can make it very textural and visceral and emotional so I enjoy bringing that world to life with the breath, the wind, heartbeats and footsteps and everything can become so loaded and poignant.
Is that something you thought about for Fell – reducing dialogue?
KB: From script to screen, I mean the script had very little dialogue, but even then we stripped out more and more. It was more about the subtext than the words, using those moments that might be after someone has said something, to do that in a more subtle way and invest the audience more in their own ideas and interpretations as to what’s going on. It has the potential to become more personal and subjective.
With your short films, there’s Lily and —
KB: There’s twelve short films actually, Booth Story and Directions are probably the most popular.
There’s one with Geoffrey Rush as well?
KB: The Man Who Couldn’t Dream, yeah.
You managed to make twelve shorts in ten years – why the long wait before doing a feature?
KB: I think it takes that amount of time to work out what kind of story you want to tell and to garner the relationships that you need to find the right producer and it just takes a long time, learning the craft and, more importantly or not equally importantly, would be gaining the trust of people who have the money. So to do that you kind of have to sometimes get lucky with a festival.
The world premiere in Official Competition is bold – people see this film next to Boyhood and —
KB: And the Dardenne Brothers new film —
There’s a level of apprehension as well.
KB: I look at a lot of the filmmakers in the program on their, you know, onto their tenth film – the Dardennes are into their seventies and they’re masters. I watched their film last night and it’s incredible. Great company to be in. I’m just starting out and I learned a lot making the films – that’s probably better than any film school I could have attended. It was very inspiring and during the shoot, thinking, is this meant to be what I’m doing – I want to do this every day, making a film is the best thing. Post, though, is more difficult. You’re more alone in post, even with a brilliant editor like Simon Price, you’re struggling with what you hoped for and what you’ve got and how do we make the most of this?
This is more a question for John, in 2012, the Screen Australia funding came through and Fell was one of the, I think six, features that were funded. Out of those six features Fell seems to be the one most on people’s radars, The Darkside got a limited release, but Fell getting into the Official Competition gives it some level of triumph pre-screening. Do you think there’s a reason for this, did you avoid some cardinal sin of filmmaking in Australia or is it something you have actively done?
KB: Don’t overhype it is the biggest thing.
John Maynard (JM): (laughs) Don’t overhype it, let people find it. It’s a most unusual film from Australia.
Well that’s what makes it exciting.
JM: It’s by a new director, it’s dealing with issues that probably haven’t been dealt with in Australian cinema in a long time and in a quite innovative way. The other thing, too, is that not many Australian films will actually work hard for an Australian premiere. For a world premiere they’ll try and find it somewhere else.
KB: And if they premiere overseas when they finally come back to Australia, Sydney might put them in a sidebar, like film number 100 on the list. At most a lot of them don’t actually have success internationally so there’s a lot of potential being wasted in Australia.
So you want to use Sydney Film Festival as a launching pad, of sorts?
JM: Through that we can launch it to the world.
I saw that the film is being released online following its world premiere, could you talk about how that came to be?
JM: Yes. A couple of weeks ago I decided to talk to the festival about sharing Fell online and it seemed to me the appropriate time to do it was at the time of its release, so, you know, it’s a world premiere, so we are going from 8 o’clock on Friday night, $9.99 streaming off of the Sydney Film Festival site and off of the Adelaide Film Festival site as well, for 50 hours. First of all it’s a world premiere and secondly its coming out of the festival and Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania are geo-blocked – that’s for a very good reason, we have other plans for them – but one of the big things that we’d hope to, because it’s a really carefully targeted audience, the Travelling Film Festival, with 19 sites, different Facebooks, emails etc, and they move from Alice Springs, Katherine, Darwin, all down the east coast and in South Australia. So obviously they’ll use their database and social media and we have a social media campaign starting today (10th June), so it’s that real ‘run hard’ mentality.
You are right, it is the first time it’s been done but also perhaps the first time an Australian film has grappled with the idea of the internet as audience – there’s a huge market out there and not everyone who wants to see if is going to come to the State for the Festival.
JM: Also it’s going to be available on every device – as long as you can access the internet and can download images on it, it’ll be there. We also thought that rather than, say, $4.99, it should be a little extra because it is a world premiere. It will be available until 10pm Sunday night and is available for the 24 hours after you purchase it.
That also has a feel, less like, say, the Google Play store, because it is through the festival and there’s a sense that it’s organic or more independent.
JM: I think the internet can actually be used to encourage people to go to the cinema. It’s like a preview of the film. Also, the internet allows us to find our target market. We used to get up to 20,000 people to see a film before it opened and it would take months and months to do – cinemas and prints and resources. This is so achievable now and I’m so surprised a lot of cinemas aren’t using it.
Last year the festival distributed Mystery Road in part, so it has been involved in this sort of thing before. What do you think of the Australian distribution landscape at the moment?
JM: I’ve been distributing films for about 35 years now, so it’s not new to me.
KB: But now is the time to worry.
JM: Now is the time to worry because we really do have what appears to be a collapse in the independent business around Australia. You have the tentpole Hollywood pictures, event cinema pictures and really a lack of confidence as audiences are finding other ways to see films and distributors are really, in my opinion, are not reacting to it, they’re sitting on their hands, doing the same thing over and over again. This is a completely new way to release films.
There’s a film in the US that did something similar, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which was released in cinemas there and 15 days into its theatrical run it went online but continued its theatrical run as well. You could see it in cinemas, stream it online, buy the Blu-Ray. There was an in-built level of trust with the audience through choice.
JM: This is one of the few businesses that don’t give consumers choice and it’s about time that people recognised this and gave them a proper choice. I believe that the audiences have to find out, there are many different ways people actually see films and it’s important that I get a response from people who have actually seen it when I have sent them the link and the first thing they want to do is see it in a cinema.
That’s good if you can plant that seed in their mind.
KB: There are some films that are more cinematic as well. Fell is shot for the big screen as well.
Do you think that if the film is a success, distribution will start to move in that direction?
JM: I really don’t know. Distribution is a sort of strange business. There’s a lot of formulas that people work in distribution and I do so few films that I treat every film as quite a different thing entirely. Everything is quite different. I released Samson & Delilah and the way in which we actually put it out to an audience was really quite different from what most people do. I think a fundamental to the release of most Australian films is that if you can’t create an event out of it, you can’t create some way for people to take notice and you do find yourself with problems. Then it gets back to content, however, there are some very good films that would have taken big business five years ago and aren’t taking big business now. Most people seem to be sitting on their hands. We’re not.
Evidently not. So what’s the plan for Fell after Sydney Film Festival and after that 50 hour window ends?
JM: We have a deal with Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia.
KB: We’ll do some festivals, MIFF, and we might do a similar online pairing with MIFF.
JM: This is a big experiment for us and it really depends on its success here. We’ll either build on it or focus it somewhere else.
KB: What is success though? Good reviews or audience enjoyment?
JM: Well the big thing is feedback – we’ll get feedback like we’ve never got before, from Facebook and Twitter and we’ll have it very fast and we’ll know exactly which sort of audiences like it most of all, whether it divides audiences, is there a new way we can release it and how do we create an event in the other states with the film? I’m fascinated what cinemas think about it. This is bringing something into the mix. This is the producer me, because I’m also the distributor I have to divide myself in two, it’s the producer me agreeing with two festivals to go online – my hope is that we get an audience on the other side of Glebe Pt Rd.
I hope so. That’s where I live. Don’t worry, I’ll bring them over.
JM: (laughs) But how many people will drive in from Penrith or Parramatta or Sutherland or Newcastle to see the festival? This is a way to make an event available to a lot of people at the time of its release.
You’re able to hit a lot of smaller film cultures in these cities.
JM: The price of cinemas is an issue today as well.
Especially with online streaming services here and abroad, there’s that idea that consumers aren’t willing to pay $15 to see Captain America 2.
JM: It’s like $20 – you can rent four movies or buy two DVDs for that money. I mean dream on.
The price is also why piracy is so rampant here.
JM: Any prohibition – on drugs, film, jam, anything – will lead to that response. It’s pretty basic stuff.
Agreed. Thanks for spending the time today to talk with me.
JM: Thank you, hop online and check out our website too for any more information.
Fell premieres in Sydney Film Festival’s Official Competition on Friday 13 June. As soon as that screening finishes, the film will be made available to stream online through the Sydney Film Festival site. You can read more over at the film’s official site.